The “N” Word, Blackface: Enough!

A couple of weeks ago, Maryland State Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti admitted to describing Prince George’s County, Maryland as “That ‘N’ district.” After acknowledging she made the statement, she apologized. But when asked by the Washington Post if she had ever used the ‘N’ word, she said, “I’m sure I have… I’m sure everyone has.”

Am I that naïve? Is this a regularly used term by everyone? Surely her ‘everyone’ doesn’t include black people. And do all white people really use this word casually and routinely?

I know it is popular for some young black people. It is used throughout certain music lyrics and is sprinkled, by some, in conversation. Several years ago, there was a notable conversation between Jay Z and Oprah. He said the ‘N’ word was just a word and that its power came from the intention of the user. That is one view. It’s not Oprah’s, and it’s not mine. I have never said it. When I hear it, it has a harshness. For me, that word evokes hatred, degradation, and vileness, but then I am more of Oprah’s generation than Jay Z’s.

When I first heard of Lisanti’s comment, I thought her ‘everyone’ might mean all white people. I hope not and really don’t believe that. What I am inclined to believe is that it is an acceptable term among her friends and family. In her community, I fear, no one would give a second thought to using it, and no one’s head would jerk back to see who said it. ‘Everyone’ is everyone in her world. That’s a problem, a serious one. An elected state official believes that everyone uses the ‘N’ word. She believes that everyone sees black people in such a way that black or African-American isn’t the term of choice. No, it’s ‘N’ and with it comes a fully formed narrative about who that person is along with a recognition that those sentiments reflect what is in her head and in her heart.

Ralph Northam. blackfaceAs we have recently learned from Virginia officials, racial insensitivity and ignorance are far more rampant than most would like to think. The Virginia Governor and Attorney General both admitted to having been in blackface. The First Lady of Virginia recently offered raw cotton to 13- and 14-year-olds touring the Governor’s Mansion so they might think what it would have been like to be a slave (Note: Tobacco was the cash crop for Virginia. Why did she choose to use cotton?) This is not only happening in Virginia, my home state. Before a recent election in Florida, one candidate urged voters “Not to monkey it up.”

Just as Ron DeSantis was using this negative, animalistic trope to refer to his black opponent, Lisanti was directly referring to the mostly black population of Prince George’s County. She was not using the ‘N’ word as a term of endearment or brotherhood as Jay Z suggested. She was using it as a derogatory reference to the fact that 65% of the residents of the county, according to the last census, are African-American. And just as a boutique in Paris didn’t care or didn’t know how much money Oprah Winfrey had when the salesperson refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, I suspect that Lisanti either didn’t know or didn’t care that 5 of the 10 wealthiest black communities in America are in Prince George’s County. And at one time, this county was touted as having the largest number of black millionaires. The color of their skin and what that means, or suggests within her value system, was the issue, not their economic status.

Lisanti has been censured by the Maryland House of Delegates. They have taken away her subcommittee leadership position, but as of this writing, she still sits as an elected leader in the state of Maryland, Governor and Mrs. Northam still occupy the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond. Mark Herring is still the Attorney General of Virginia and, even with his coarse comment, last November, Ron DeSantis was elected Governor of Florida. And these aren’t just the recent ones, they’re just the ones we know about.

What does having these leaders in Virginia, or Maryland or Florida mean for the people of their states? Whose needs do they understand? Which citizens do they fight for? Who do they see as the contributors to the success and promise of their states? Who do they believe are the dregs that detract from their states? Your word choices and actions reflect what is in your head and your heart and they have significant ramifications, consciously and unconsciously.

I do not believe you can fully represent the needs of people you denigrate, people who you do not value.

Elected officials who belittle and demean cannot be removed from office for callousness or ignorance. They have done nothing against the law. They have, however, revealed their inability to represent the needs of their entire constituency. When that has been shown by the words they say and the actions they take, they should apologize, and they should resign. That—perhaps—might help them regain, at a minimum, some integrity.


Why I Wrote Daughters of the Dream: An Anniversary Story

Sometimes parts of your world connect in ways that are only clear in hindsight.

It happened seven years ago. It was February 2012 when I started to write Daughters of the Dream. Initially, it had been my friend Renee’s idea to write a book about our lifelong friendship — eight girls as we grew to become women —  but she didn’t have the time; so it became my project. New author, same focus. Then, on February 26, 2012, a tragedy happened. Trayvon Martin was killed.  His death changed the story.

My son, AJ, was roughly the same age as Trayvon (born 366 days apart). I kept seeing AJ in that situation and knew only fate had led Trayvon, not my son, to that horrible destiny. About a month after his murder, I wrote a post for The Daily WRAG, the blog produced by my organization, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. In the post titled “Trayvon Martin, Silent. We Must Speak” I openly shared my feelings about Trayvon’s murder and discussed talking with my son about how he should negotiate everyday life events, like driving- and shopping-while-black, to lessen the likelihood of a similar situation and threat to his safety.

Following the post, many white colleagues expressed surprise I still had to talk with my son about discrete behaviors because of his race. That is when I knew it. They perceived me to be like them. They thought my life experience was like theirs. In some ways, we may have presented to be similar—education, family background, community standing—but our worlds were very different.

tlc. bookOnly in hindsight did I recognize these factors as  all contributing to how I approached the book: Trayvon’s death, my WRAG blog post on his death, and then my clarity on the lack of understanding of what my world is like from some of my white colleagues. And lastly, it was February, Black History Month. Subconsciously, I was processing all of this as I began to write Daughters of the Dream., a book initially only about a lifelong friendship.

The first conscious shift from a focus solely on friendship was my decision to frame our story within the context of black history. My structured education on black historical facts stopped when I left segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School, but at least I had had that foundation along with a black family and a black community that ingrained in me an understanding of the accomplishments and challenges facing black people.  As I wrote, I wondered how, or if, white people learned black history,  that is black history at any depth.  I knew that they got the high level information: slavery occurred, it was terrible, maybe something about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, then the exceptionalism of Frederick Douglass, skip to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, maybe Malcolm X, and then the election of Barack Obama. Perhaps they received a quick introduction to a few other black leaders during Black History Month, but there was no immersion in facts about the black experience in white people’s day-to-day education.

The recent incident in Virginia, my home state, of a picture unearthed of someone in blackface and someone else dressed as a hate-filled Klansman revealed a lack of understanding of the viciousness of such imagery, or maybe it revealed a more base lack of caring.  Perhaps if those in the picture had an underpinning of knowledge about black contributions to America and clarity about the oppression and degradation of blacks by whites, their actions, and those of others, would have been different – perhaps. For far too many white Americans, their knowledge about African-Americans is  very limited, coming primarily from personal experiences or the media. Far too many in white America still do not understand black Americans.

I wanted to use my book to introduce white readers to ordinary black people, living everyday lives. I wanted them to see that there were families free of the pathology they so often heard about from the national media and, at one time, even from leading sociologists and psychologists.  I wanted them to see parents who were not living in deprivation, but who worked through their daily lives in the positions available to them while preparing their children to rise to the next rung of societal opportunity. And, I wanted them to see those children as adults, similar to them, but with issues of race and racism swirling about them everyday, realities of which many white readers may be unaware.

And, I wanted black readers, particularly younger ones, to recognize another aspect of black history from what they typically learn. I tried to reinforce that the struggles of Selma and Birmingham were real, violent, and important, but so too was the gentler resistance of the Richmond34 protesting the segregationist practices of the two major Richmond department stores or the get-out-the-vote efforts of the Crusade for Voters working to elect leaders who would understand and represent the issues of all Richmonders.  The fight for racial equity has taken different paths, but all black people have been a part of the fight.

As I wrote  our story, I recognized that over the years, whenever my girlfriends and I gathered, we would go to a black-themed art exhibit or see a black-themed movie. We would follow that with lunch at a black-owned or Southern-themed restaurant. And, always our talk was, and is, of some current event that affects black people. Why? We are always thirsty for black culture, knowledge, and for balance. We swim in a white world,  moving upstream against  erroneous white narratives of criminality, dysfunction, incompetence, and immorality. Our group offers a needed space to process the events of our world, to re-fuel our souls, and to develop the inner strength to go on.

So, yes Daughters of the Dream captures our friendship, but it also captures our history, our normalcy, and our desire to shape America to be the country that recognizes all who built it and all who contribute to its place in the world.  We may not all have been visible, named leaders, but each of us played, and continues to play, a part in the ongoing push for racial justice.